27 February 18 | Orisa Santiago Morrice

This week we will be looking at the opening section of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow. If you didn’t already, you can catch the conversation between Chad Post, Tom Roberge, and Brian Wood on this section of the book at Three Percent or on YouTube for the unedited, behind the scenes full audio-visual experience (check out this link if you want to see a panicked Chad Post trapped alone in the gaze of the internet for a couple minutes). This post explores the epigraphy, which establishes an interesting approach to the book, and the Prologue, which introduces us to characters we’ll be encountering. You can find my previous Two Month Review post introducing Georgi Gospodinov and his work here .

The Epigraphy: How to read The Physics of Sorrow (or, Ugh! Borges again!?)

I am drawn to the moment in last week’s conversation when the three of them discussed the epigraphy of The Physics of the Sorrow. Tom storms the center of the exchange and states, roughly, “I have to be honest [. . .] after a while I just don’t care,” in regards to the listing of quotes, and exclaims, with his charming sarcastic self “‘oh a Borges quote, oooh!” And as an avid reader and writer, and frequent participant (read: wallflower) of literary discussions, I understand where Tom is coming from. Borges, despite his clear influence and well earned titanic presence in contemporary literature gets his name dropped a tad too often at cocktail parties, awkward first dates, and, especially, discussions of books that aren’t his. But despite Tom’s understandable outrage, Borges still fits perfectly within Gospodinov’s meaningful epigraphy.

But let’s follow the string back a few paces, so to speak, since Borges isn’t the the center of our discussion, and glean the full collection of epigraphs that open The Physics of Sorrow. I’ve broken up the epigraphs into three subsections. The first spans the first three epigraphs and creates a sense of how Gospodinov’s world in The Physics of Sorrow works—its physics, you could say. The second, which spans the fourth to the seventh epigraphs, catalogs the building blocks of the stories. The third and final section, dictated by the last two epigraphs, allows readers a moment to question what activity they are about to engage in and reminds them of their opportunity to find truth or resign themselves from it as they wander into this particular labyrinth.

The First Span: Pessoa, Gaustine, and Borges

Fernando Pessoa, author of the first quote on the list, is a renowned heavyweight of the Portuguese literary scene of the late 19th to early 20th centuries. This epigraph is drawn from a long poem called “Ulysses,” where Pessoa explicates the Homeric figure’s place in the founding and resulting traditions of Portugal (Lisbon, originally Lisboa, derived from the Portugese variant of Ulysses: Ulissippo). This glance into the expanded excerpt deepens the relationship between Pessoa, Gospodinov, and myth:

Myth is the nought that means all.
The very sun that opens up the sky
Is a bright and silent myth-
The dead embodiment of God
Alive and naked.

Pessoa’s opening stanza familiarizes the reader with the relationship of myth to human history, suggesting that if you peel away enough from any story, or any understanding of a given event, or any cultural practice, you’re left with something mythic at the core. This idea resonates strongly with The Physics of Sorrow, as Chad, Tom, and Brian peeled back the layers during their discussion and kept finding a Minotaur, a myth of sin and abandonment, and its labyrinth. These dark myths are the very essence that illuminates the world that we see, and are a priority to Gospodinov..

The next epigraph is from the noteworthy, seminal, perpetually poignant, well-known Gaustine. If you haven’t heard of him, then you’re clearly just not in the know, whether you’re talking about the mysterious seventeenth-century writer, or the good friend of narrator Gospodinov. From his Selected Biographies:

There is only childhood and death. And nothing in between…

This observation cements what readers can expect from The Physics of Sorrow by building upon Pessoa’s claim. If Pessoa’s epigraph created the first rule of how Gospodinov’s world functions, Gaustine generates the next rule: while myth is everything, there is only childhood and death and nothing in between. The world as we know it is mythic, and those myths are of children and the dead—these themes clearly developed in The Physics of Sorrow. And these themes complement the work at hand, mirroring priorities in Gospodinov’s writing.

But Gaustine isn’t real and is crafted by Gospodinov himself. This prestidigitation fits within the epigraphy as both Pessoa and Borges frequently blurred the line between fact and fiction through working under pseudonyms (or heteronyms, as specified by Pessoa) or generating quotations credited to authors of their own creation (which Borges utilized frequently).

There was a great moment during last week’s conversation when Chad admitted to making up some old Greek dudes to get a point across. Brian then admitted to generating some quick and sloppy Bible verses for his work. I’ve even crafted an imaginary phenomenologist, one Dr. Austra, who initially came to me in a dream as he led me to his tombstone to find his notebook which I raided for some ramblings in my long form fiction. This tradition of imagination and trickery lives on.

The last epigraph in this span is from Borges and fairly straightforward in regards to the themes of the epigraphy and the construction of Gospodinov’s world in The Physics of Sorrow. As with Pessoa’s epigraph, looking at the entirety of the excerpt aids in understanding its importance. This excerpt was the opening from the poem “1964.” The first full half of the poem is as follows:

The world has lost its magic. They have left you.
You no longer share the clear moon
nor the slow gardens. Now there is
no moon that isn’t a mirror to the past,

Solitary crystal, anguished sun.
Goodbye to the mutual hands and the temples
that brought love closer. Today all you have
is the faithful memory and the deserted days.

Nobody loses (you repeat vainly)
Except what they don’t have
and never had, but it is not enough to be valiant

For to learn the art of forgetting
a symbol, a rose, rips you apart
and a guitar can kill you.

We are met with clear cues from the expanded excerpt that strengthen its place in this span of the epigraphy. Through Borges, we understand the world at large: the world is no longer magical; we have been abandoned. These ideas are further built upon from select moments of the larger excerpt. From the opening line we’ve already highlighted, to the last syntactic unit of the second stanza,

[. . .] Today all you have
is the faithful memory and the deserted days [. . .]

to the entirety of the third stanza,

Nobody loses (you repeat vainly)
Except what they don’t have
and never had [. . .]

to the last whole stanza,

For to learn the art of forgetting
a symbol, a rose, rips you apart
and a guitar can kill you [. . .]

each of these statements deepen the importance of memory and loss through forgetfulness and abandonment that Gospodinov is constructing through the epigraphy and into the rest of the book. The next span explains that memory plays a critical role in Gospodinov’s exploration. The individual pieces of the greater work directly address loss frequently, especially in the form of abandonment.

We started the epigraphy with everything being mythic, to the point where we struggle to identify it directly. Then we understood that there is only childhood and death, further expanding what we can discuss by returning so-called adults to an state of innocence, loss of innocence, and perpetual wonder while they careen to their eventual demise. And finally, we come to learn that while myth may be the core of our behaviors and traditions, the world itself is not magical (at least not anymore), and we are abandoned, left aimlessly to our devices. Gospodinov slowly familiarizes us to the mechanisms of his work by drawing on these mythic, myth-obsessed authors—who, in the cases of Pessoa and Borges, frequently toyed with authorship, and, through their epigraphs, show us a cold a mythic world that Gospodinov has built his own writing within. In the case of Gaustine, the imagined literary phantom of Gospodinov, he shares his sentiments of how the world functions.

The Second Span: “memory and desire”

This span of epigraphs effectively introduces us to the basic units of The Physics of Sorrow and how Gospodinov will succeed at convincing us that this is how his world works.

The first comes from Saint Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, Book X. St. Augustine was a North African Christian theologian from the fifth century, and his selection supports the ideas building throughout the epigraphy:

I will soar, then, beyond this power of my nature also, still rising by degrees toward him who made me. And I enter the fields and spacious halls of memory, where are stored as treasures the countless images that have been brought into them from all manner of things by the senses. There, in the memory, is likewise stored what we cogitate, either by enlarging or reducing our perceptions, or by altering one way or another those things which the senses have made contact with; and everything else that has been entrusted to it and stored up in it, which oblivion has not yet swallowed up and buried.

The removed portions are important, particularly St. Augustine’s explanation of how perceptions can be enlarged or reduced or otherwise altered to better explore these halls of memories. As we’ll later engage with both the prologue and “The Bread of Sorrow”, the crux of this work relies on the narrator’s ability to place himself in the memories of others while these others may not even be human. St. Augustine calls out for a similar ability to expand beyond the limitations his human senses and, religiously speaking, perceive the glory of God in the world around him. Furthermore, that last section,

[. . .] everything else that has been entrusted to it and stored up in it, which oblivion has not yet swallowed up and buried [. . .]

establishes an idea that we’ll return to shortly within another epigraph and further explains what the world of The Physics of Sorrow is made of. This adherence to memory and experience is key to Gospodinov.

While slightly out of order, I want to jump to the sixth epigraph due to it’s thematic relevance to Saint Augustine’s epigraph (bear with me). Gustave Flaubert, a French author and aesthete from his national realist literary movement, provides the next insight into The Physics of Sorrow by mirroring Gospodinov’s approach to memory by expanding St. Augustine’s ideas. The Temptation of Saint Anthony is a play that retells the spiritual temptations that its titular character encounters as he crosses the desert sands of Egypt. After surviving yet another harrowing encounter with a demon, or some other threatening creature, Anthony exclaims:

O bliss! bliss! I have seen the birth of life; I have seen the beginning of motion. The blood beats so strongly in my veins that it seems about to burst them. I feel a longing to fly, to swim, the bark, to bellow, to howl. I would like to have wings, a tortoise shell, a rind, to blow out smoke, to wear a trunk, to twist my body, to spread myself everywhere, to be in everything, to emanate with odors, to grow like plants, to flow like water…to penetrate every atom, to descend to the very depths of matter—to be matter.

In this moment of severe dehydration, St. Anthony fractures his perception beyond the limitations of his humanity. By invoking this, and building upon St. Augustine, Gospodinov hints to his readers that his narratives aren’t bound to a particular species, existence, or lack thereof, in his exploration of abandonment. Whatever entity he needs to embody to make the point, he will, just to get it right.

The next in this span is from our beloved, mysterious Gaustine, from his timeless The Forsaken Ones. This excerpt capitalizes on what we’re looking at throughout The Physics of Sorrow, and builds upon what fills both St. Augustine and St. Anthony with such wonder.

Only the fleeting and ephemeral are worth recording.

This particular epigraph builds on the previous ones from St. Augustine and Flaubert by elucidating that The Physics of Sorrow exists as a repository of memories, which are the “fleeting and ephemeral” to St. Augustine and that “which oblivion has not yet swallowed up and buried” to Flaubert. Gaustine explains how easily memory is lost. Gospodinov is driven to recover memories; the book is a collection of these fleeting moments captured through Gospodinov’s ability to embed himself in memories.

The last epigraph of this second span is by American modernist heavyweight T.S. Eliot. Taken from his (overly) anthologized The Waste Land, Gospodinov tastefully draws upon a short and broken moment from the piece to further build on the nature of these contents—actually maintaining the formal qualities from its original position onto the epigraph.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

From this expanded excerpt we see that this mix of memory and desire follows the dissonance created between the changing seasons and our own shifting emotional states. Again we’re guided to understand that we will be experiencing Georgi’s desire for wholeness, or at least context, mitigated by explorations of his and others’ memories. The narrator’s exploration of the memories of those around him to better understand his own life is addressed through this.

Gospodinov has prepared us for the range of perspectives that we’ll come to encounter once we enter the prologue and “The Bread of Sorrow.” He isn’t concerned with building a straightforward narrative limited by human sensory perception, but simply tries to access, experience and collect these memories. Despite the cold world that the first three epigraphs in the section built, these last four epigraphs highlight just how brilliant and varied the world can be—even as these recollections test the nature of the believable. This will be important as we enter the third span of epigraphs and dive into the prologue.

The Third and Final Span: Reality and Fiction at Play

This last span is a commentary and final preparation for readers and how we can consider our engagement with the book. As the first span established the rules of this lonely world, and the second highlighted the building blocks of it through ephemera and ranges of experience, this last set of epigraphs asks us to question to nature of our experience as readers with the book. As I removed in an earlier draft of my previous blog post, my experience, so far, with The Physics of Sorrow, makes me almost feel like a book doesn’t do it justice. I initially described my experience of reading it as a dip in a lukewarm pool, something akin to a sensory deprivation tank where you’re floating, salted, quiet until you’re bombarded by the far reaches of your own mind in a blur of memory and imagination (said better by Eliot’s epigraph, possibly).

The first, again by the beloved Gaustine, picks at the general nature of the novel:

Purebred genres don’t interest me much. The novel is no Aryan.

Appropriately, this piece is far from a purebred genre. Literary types from around the world and across times have supported their racket by perpetually picking and prodding enough times to designate appropriate categories for books to fall within, something that can be clearly labeled in the corner of a bookstore or in the halls of a library. Lest we forget, obsessions with categorization ring a tad too closely to the politics of eugenics that terrorized the Western world from the mid 19th century to the present day, or call, generally, to an affinity for fascist governments to categorize and document their citizens. These are relationships that Gospodinov understands all too well.

Gaustine is concerned with these potentially dangerous associations and seeks to liberate the novel from them. The “novel” as we know it today is made up elements dug up and stapled together from corners of history and brought to life by an artistic imagination like Gaustine’s or Gospodinov’s, and, as such, asks his readers to suspend expectations of how a book, and its contents, function and how it can be categorized and to simply experience the contents of a book as an extension of their author’s imaginations—no matter how varied and fractured it may be.

And finally, turning to possibly the least imaginative writer of the 20th century, Gospodinov ends his epigraphy with a simple statement for the reader, and what I consider a beautiful transition into the prologue. This epigraph is drawn from from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, a memoir posthumously published. As with the other epigraphs, looking at the excisions has consistently strengthened the meaning and effectiveness of these epigraphs and their relationship to The Physics of Sorrow. The excerpt in question is from the preface:

For reasons sufficient to the writer, many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book. Some were secrets and some were known by everyone and everyone has written about them and will doubtless write more.

There is no mention of the Stade Anastasie where the boxers served as waiters at the tables set out under the trees and the ring was in the garden. Nor of training with Larry Gains, nor the great twenty-round fights at the Cirque d’Hiver. Nor of such good friends as Charlie Sweeney, Bill Bird and Mike Strater, nor of André Masson and Miro. There is no mention of our voyages to the Black Forest or of our one-day explorations of the forests that we loved around Paris. It would be fine if all these were in this book but we will have to do without them for now.

If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.

Despite the reflective, ‘autobiographical’ nature of A Moveable Feast, the weight generated by the labelling of ‘memoir,’ and the promises that such a literary form can make to its readers, Hemingway is already acknowledging that the truth has been altered within the pages, even in the form of events not being recollected. We are already working with the imagination and subjectivity of a human being, further bringing into to question the authority of this work to properly represent these moments. Hemingway recognizes the futility of pushing something forward as truth, and simply leaves it up to the readers. But he doesn’t fully surrender to the futility of pushing a collection of memories in front of distant, unkind readers. With the last sentence of the preface,

But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.

Hemingway places his faith in the value of fiction to strengthen the reality of the author. As the last of the epigraphs, Gospodinov poses the same option to the readers of The Physics of Truth —for them to take the work as they want to.

The Prologue: Who are these People; What are these Things?

As I turned the page from the epigraphy and gazed upon this short collections of selves, I flipped my legal pad over, pulled a page from the back, and started jotting down notes on who these people—no, that’s not accurate enough—who these entities were. This isn’t to say that I never delved into texts with genealogies or other convoluted relationships between generations of characters (Not Martin, think Faulkner), but this is to say that this is the first time I felt a need to keep track of who, or what, these entities were. I went from one paragraph to the next, taking down the important information, anxious by my potential lack of ability to find them as the text further unfolded.

The Boys of War

Some of these profiles point to people that we’ll come to identify, through the first section, as members of narrator Gospodinov’s family. These profiles follow a similar structure established by the first, and longest.

I was born at the end of August 1913 as a human being of the male sex. I don’t know the exact date. They waited a few days to see whether I would survive and then put me down in the registry. That’s what they did with everyone. Summer work was winding down, they still had to harvest this and that from the fields, the cow had calved, they were fussing over her. The Great War was about to start. I sweated through it right alongside all the other childhood illnesses, chicken pox, measles, and so on.

This description of a child born during wartime, into poverty and general uncertainty becomes a common circumstance as we progress into the prologue and eventually the work itself, and focus on myth and abandonment.

The next of these similar profiles gives us a window into Gospodinov’s presence in this work—it’s wonderful how he teases the reader and hides himself within the work like this.

I was born on January 1, 1968, as a human being of the male sex. I remember all of 1968 in detail from beginning to end. I don’t remember anything of the year we’re in now. I don’t even know its number.

Despite presumably being the stand-in for author Georgi Gospodinov, he establishes himself as only one of many voices that contribute to the discussion at hand and despite his sole place as a memory jumper in the work, as we’ll come to discuss, he prepares the reader for the multiplicity that pervades the work.

The next of these profiles strengthens the building themes of political instability via war and abandonment.

I was born on September 6, 1944, as a human being of the male sex. Wartime. A week later my father left for the front. My mother’s milk dried up. A childless auntie wanted to take me in and raise me, but they wouldn’t give me up. I cried whole nights from hunger. They gave me bread dipped in wine as a pacifier.

Another boy born during wartime, into hardship, into uncertainty, into shifting familial and political circumstances. We will come to learn through the first section that this is Gospodinov’s father, but simply mediated by his circumstances, and not represented by his eventual personhood. And these profiles, and this section as a whole, foreshadows a unique aspect of narrator Gospodinov’s embedding ability, where he experiences these moments from the lives of those close to him: time shatters in this process. As you’ll find in the “The Bread of Sorrow,” narrator Gospodinov and his unborn whole family through time watch in horror as their great grandfather is abandoned as a boy:

[. . .] Yet another long minute goes by. I imagine how in that min-
ute the faces of the unborn look on, holding their breath. There
they are, craning their necks through the fence of time, my father,
my aunt, my other aunt, there’s my brother, there’s me, there’s my
daughter, standing on tiptoes. Their, our appearance over the years
depends on that minute and on the young woman’s silence. I wonder
whether she suspects how many things are being decided now?

These profiles both are and aren’t timeless, and these people—these entities, are both rooted at certain points and times but also freed from them as narrator Gospodinov embeds himself in their memories. This is clear through author Gospodinov’s own profile where we clearly remembers the year that he was born, presumably through embedding himself in the memories of his parents, yet has a difficult remembering the current year, whenever that may be. This is key to reading The Physics of Sorrow and yet is elucidated in the first pages. Thank you, Georgi.

While these stand as the more tangible of the profiles, I am not trying to diminish their importance. In this navigation of the prologue, we are simply beginning to understand the range of voices that Gospodinov engages with in his exploration of sorrow.

And You Are?

The rest of these profiles beautifully stretch the imagination of the reader before they enter the body, proper, of the text. With that, we’re introduced to one of the more challenging profiles to decipher, but possibly one of the easiest to accept.

I was born two hours before dawn like a fruit fly. I’ll die this evening after sundown.

From my own reading of this work I haven’t yet encountered this entity in the texts. There comes a moment when a young narrator Gospodinov becomes a God to the ants in his parent’s basement apartment, or just basement—no fruit flies yet. But due to Gospodinov’s own meticulous approach to his writing, not limited to his construction of authors and works, I have my eyes peeled for this fruit fly entity, whether or not it actually is a fruit fly when we encounter it.

The fourth profile throws us for a loop, as we’re introduced to, possibly, the anthropomorphization of a concept, or a guiding elemental or scientific force.

I have always been born. I still remember the beginning of the Ice Age and the end of the Cold War. The sight of the dying dinosaurs (in both epochs) is one of the most unbearable things I have seen.

Is this God? Is this evolution? Is it revolution? We don’t know yet, but the possibilities promise a shifting, exploratory quality to the work at hand. And it gets even crazier in the next section. We aren’t dealing with an individual man, or an idea, but the unborn, and consciousness in the void that is aware of it’s entry point! What a privilege.

I remember being born as a rose bush, a partridge, as ginkgo biloba, a snail, a cloud in June (that memory is brief), a purple autumnal crocus near Halensee, an early-blooming cherry frozen by a late April snow, as snow freezing a hoodwinked cherry tree…

Here I am drawn violently back to St. Augustine and Flaubert and their joint yearning for a broader range of experiences. Was this a series of plants sitting next to each other, despite their differing seasons and geographies? Was I to imaging a plant that could change into another? Was there not really a plant at all? What mattered is that this plant felt, and could recollect. I am rendered to a body of questions by this point, but I know that as I read forward, I’m looking for plants and open to hear what they say.

Finally, my favorite of the profiles, the collective act of being from all of them joined in a grammatically challegening statement, and possibly the shortest sentence in the book.

We am.

I am drawn to the repetition of the prologue. In one reading of this section I considered a room, Alcoholics Anonymous modeled, where each of these entities went in a circle sharing who they were before delving into the emotional phantoms that haunted them—one permutation of what I imagined this book being. In my second, third, and fifth readings I imagined these voices all coming from one mouth of an amorphous being home to all these experiences—something akin to the horrific Judeo-Christian winged wheel-angels. But despite these two anticipations, I felt that from this starting position, Gospodinov was telling me to keep an eye out for the disparate, lost entities who, while disconnected by space and time, are connected by loss and abandonment as these forces are the guiding principles of his mythic world that he’s slowly making sense of.

Some Final Thoughts before we Lose Ourselves

At this point, I had no sense of how the novel would unfold—I had yet to read much into Gospodinov aside from some light Wikipedia scratches. I wasn’t sure if I was going to experience an evolution—were we going to start at the fruit fly, or the ever-shifting plants, and find ourselves in World War I? Were we the collective consciousness that then diffuses into all these, arguably, sentient beings. I was piqued, to say the least, and so I brought myself to attention and prepared myself.

I suggest that before you pick up this book and continue reading through it that you center yourself in loss. Think about a time when you were forgotten, whether you realized right away and burst into tears at that very moment, or if it snuck up on your decades later while you’re chopping vegetables for a dinner for two that you ended up eating by yourself by the end of the night. Despite the ever shifting tones, and moods, and places that Gospodinov guides you through, whether the stories make you laugh, or cry, or confuse you, focus on loss, focus on abandonment. Ultimately, from this point in the book, Gospodinov restructures the notion of abandonment and loss, not by stripping it of the pain that pervades the experience but by, in every sense of the word, broadening our imaginations to how we can understand it.

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